The Holocaust survivor who once danced at Josef Mengele's ordersby Diana Wichtel
At 90, psychologist and survivor Edith Eger has published a new book, and she still boogies.
It was a solemn occasion but she and the PM hit it off. “People asked me later if we were talking about the nuclear bombs and so on,” she says in her musical Hungarian accent down the line from California, “and I said, ‘No, we talked about how to lose weight.’” Peals of laughter. “Because he was interested.”
Eger is about to turn 90 when we speak and she takes some keeping up with. “I go back and forth and here and there,” she says, of her free-range speaking style. “People try to take notes. I say, ‘Please don’t take notes.’ Stream of consciousness.”
It’s easy to imagine unburdening yourself to her. “I don’t like to call myself a therapist,” she says. “I like the idea of dance, that you hold someone’s hand.” I tell her that her new book The Choice, a vivid, valiant account of her life and her work helping others, made me cry. “Well, you know, crying is healing. Sometimes people tell me, ‘Edie, I hate you, because you made me cry’, and I say, ‘There is no way I can make you cry. I just bring on feelings in you that were there already. That’s why the opposite of expression is depression. You can’t heal what you don’t feel. I have a lot of one-liners.” There are a lot of tears in her book, she says. “Buckets, buckets.”
Eger, born Edith Elefant, was 16 and a talented dancer and gymnast in Kassa in Hungary (now Košice in Slovakia) when the Nazis invaded in March 1944. For the crime of being Jewish, she lost her place on an Olympics training team and in May of that year she, her parents and her sister Magda were deported to Auschwitz. Another sister, Klara, a violinist, escaped – “she was saved by her Christian professor,” Eger recalls.
On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were separated, then she and her sister were pushed to the right, their mother to the left. At the barracks she asked another girl about her mother. “She points to the smoke rising up from one of the chimneys in the distance,” writes Eger. “‘Your mother is burning in there,’ she says.”
Edith was made to dance for the infamous Dr Josef Mengele while he decided the fate of the group of girls she was with. She closed her eyes and transported herself to the opera house in Budapest, dancing Romeo and Juliet. It’s that sort of act of imagination and will that she credits with helping her survive.
“When I saw those eyes, his look, I was totally intimidated. I didn’t know whether I was going to move and be the next in the gas chamber. I made up my mind – I don’t know how that came to me, at the age of 16 – but I [thought], ‘They are the prisoners, not me.’ Because I believed that they had a conscience – huh! – and that they were going to pay for what they were doing, wearing that uniform.”
She was severely beaten. She was in a world, she says, where it would have been easier to die than to live. “This has been documented and I saw it with my own eyes. People attacked the guard and they were shot. Or they ran into the barbed wire and they got electrocuted. I saw the blue bodies.”
She tried to live. “They could torture me and they could beat me, but they could never murder my spirit. If I survive today, then tomorrow I’m going to see my boyfriend who told me that I have beautiful eyes and beautiful hands.” She would eventually find out that her boyfriend had died the day before liberation. “But that kept me alive, that somehow I’m going to make it. That this is just temporary and that I can survive it.”
Central to survival was staying with her sister. One day they were lined up, waiting to be tattooed. “I was told they don’t want to waste the ink on me because I’m going to the gas chamber.” In the chaos, Magda was pushed into another line. “You see, survivors have to be very quick decision-makers. You couldn’t contemplate on your navel. So I got the attention of the Nazi and I started to do cartwheels so Magda could run and we could be together.”
In the spring of 1945, Edith and her sister and other prisoners were moved from camp to camp, ending in a death march. The sisters ended up at Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. There she was found, barely alive, in a pile of corpses, when an American soldier from the 71st Infantry saw her hand move.
“I call it the saints came marching in. The soldiers kept coming in and I saw this guy with tears in his eyes and M&Ms in his hand. I had my sister and we made it, miraculously.”
Decades later, her work with post-traumatic stress disorder took her to Fort Carson, Colorado. “I discovered it was the home of the 71st Infantry that gave me a second chance in life. See how things come around? Isn’t that amazing? There is hope in hopelessness.”
After the war, Edith met and married former partisan Béla Eger. They emigrated to America with their first daughter in 1949, had two more children and she went back to school and became a psychologist. Béla Eger died in 1993.
Eger’s book, The Choice, also charts her work with patients, from a catatonic army captain who arrived with a loaded gun – she takes him for a walk with her dog – to parents who have lost a child to suicide. “How can I be useful to you?” she asks. They are useful to her, too, helping her confront her own wounds.
In 1990, she went back to Poland, to the site of Auschwitz. “I told my sister and she told me I’m a complete idiot,” says Eger. “I’m a masochist. What’s the matter with me, didn’t I have enough?
“But her needs and my needs were very different. I had survivor’s guilt and if that wasn’t bad enough, I had tremendous survivor’s shame. I could never forgive myself until I went back and revisited Auschwitz.”
There’s a quiet, shattering moment in The Choice that recalls what she went back to confront: the fear that with the wrong choice of word – she is asked by Mengele if the woman with her is her mother or her sister – she might have doomed her mother. “I could not forgive myself, thinking if I would have said ‘sister’ then maybe my mother would have made it.”
At Auschwitz, she decided that there’s still a choice to be made in the present: “To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence. To stop asking why I deserved to survive,” she writes. There’s no changing what happened, “but there is a life I can save. It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.”
Eger writes of another moment years later, when her sister Klara said to her, “If I had been there, our mother would have made it.” How did she respond to what must have been a devastating reproach? “You know, I just hugged her and kept her feelings company. I didn’t deny her truth. That was the truth for her and I just held her. I thought words would just get in the way. Because I didn’t know what could have been. But I know that I cannot change the past.”
For Eger, going back brought healing. “Go through the valley of the shadow of death, but don’t set up house there,” is one of her useful one-liners. “I refuse to be a victim,” she said. “I was victimised. It’s not who I am. It was what was done to me.”
For years, Eger wouldn’t speak about what happened during the war. Then she read the classic memoir by Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“Without Viktor Frankl, I maybe would still keep my secret. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity so I went underground. He was just magnificent, guiding us to find meaning in suffering.”
You can see why they became close friends. Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
But aren’t some people so hurt, some situations so impossible, that choice no longer really exists? “I think that some people are more stubborn and change is very, very difficult because you’ve got to be totally honest with yourself. What are you willing to let go of? What are you holding on to?”
People evolve self-destructive strategies such as trying to look for other people’s approval, trying to please everyone or do everything right, which can never happen. The answer, she says, is “to really, truly practise self-love, which is self-care, which is not narcissistic. Narcissistic people don’t like themselves.”
Liberation came, but for Eger, freedom took a lot longer. “We were liberated May 4 and I witnessed how people would go through the gate – I’m picturing it now as I talk to you – and then pretty soon they would come back.” In hospital, she became suicidal. “I had no meaning in my life. There is nothing. My parents are not coming home. I did not go from one day to the next, ‘now I’m free’. I think it’s a life’s work to truly embrace myself.”
She had flashbacks and remains sensitive to loud noises. “Even now I’m really afraid of angry men. I don’t know what they are going to do next. People tell me, ‘Edie, you got over it,’ and I say, ‘No, I never got over it and I’m never going to forget it.’ But somehow I came to terms with that,” she says. “Worry is in the future and guilt is in the past. So I am very much in the present.”
The present still involves some impressive acts of will. “The doctor tells me, ‘What drugs are you on?’ And I say, ‘Zero’, and they can’t believe it. I do everything I can not to reach out for the pain pill.” She has a busy clinical practice. She offers, should I ever come to La Jolla, to show me how to cook Hungarian.
Eger still finishes talks and speeches with a dancer’s high kick, “but not as high as I would like it to. And I go every Sunday with my boyfriend and we do the boogie-woogie and the swing dancing. The children call it supermarket music. It’s okay. My music is my music.”
Her sister Magda is 95. “I just spoke to her a minute ago. She’s a Life Master in bridge and that keeps her alive. She even played with Omar Sharif.”
And now there is her book. I wonder if she will find it exposing. “I like that thing, exposing,” she says, “because, yes, I am in my nakedness. I can get mad and sad and feel any feelings and still accept myself as no more and no less than being human.”
It must have been hard, writing about the past. “I decided that maybe that’s how I could honour my precious parents. I am going to be in a bookstore here, Warwick’s, and I know that I’m going to cry because it ain’t over, you know.”
She will, no doubt, do it in her own way – don’t take notes – and finish with her dancer’s high kick. Her music is her music.
THE CHOICE, by Edith Eger (Rider, Penguin Random House, $35).
This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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